mon 22/07/2024

Tony Kofi Quartet, 606 Club review - from good to great | reviews, news & interviews

Tony Kofi Quartet, 606 Club review - from good to great

Tony Kofi Quartet, 606 Club review - from good to great

British-Ghananian saxophonist and his fabulous quartet pay homage to Thelonius Monk

Toni Kofi and colleagues at the 606 Club

Twenty years ago, the British-Ghanaian saxophonist Tony Kofi recorded the results of a venture as ambitious as it was potentially audacious: an album of transpositions for sax of music by the master of improvisational quirk and idiosyncratic technique on piano: Theolonius Monk.

Plays Monk was, duly, an astonishing debut statement of intent, musicality, and reverent but confident understanding of Monk specifically, and of Bebop’s journeys parallel to Monk’s studio and live recordings for Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Columbia records.

During the interim years - and several awards and accolades later – Kofi has proceeded from being a very good to a great musician, with his singularly cogent entwinement of both academic and free-flow jazz, as initially acquired by teaching himself and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (thereby lies a tale, of which later in this notice).

Exactly two decades later, Kofi and his marvellous quartet return to that music to mark the re-release of the album, remastered for vinyl, and thrilling live delivery of its contents at London’s last and best old-school-class jazz joint, 606. Toni Kofi Quartet at the 606 ClubBoo Boo’s Birthday – written, so the lore has it, by Monk’s wife Nellie in 1968 for their daughter Barbara’s birthday - establishes the night with its infectious 7-note riff and percussive piano, launching into flows of music that sound improvised, such is the freshness, but are mostly written and transposed: “apart from the improvs, the melodies are note for note”, Kofi would explain during the break.

John Fordham has praised Kofi's "pungent, anguished and sometimes yearningly romantic sax sound", and this aptly describes the haunting, soulful opening of Ugly Beauty, which follows – Monk’s only waltz, from his 1967 album Underground: a tribute to the imperfections that make for real beauty. But Kofi can also drive a piece with vim and vigour, as in the ensuing and complex Trinkle Tinkle (which Monk recorded with John Coltrane): with its signature riff (which echoes Boo Boo) and variations: a first real wander from the record with Jonathan Gee’s expanded piano intervention leading the tempo break into full swing on sax.

Kofi’s gift is to play jazz as though it were seamless, but in such a way that the phrases and riffs between what would have been the seams are statements of their own, independent from their neighbours. In that vein, the “yearning romance” comes beautifully with Ruby My Dear, which Monk wrote way back in 1947, and its little dance in the middle, to which Kofi gives the hypnotic soulfulness, sentient but never sentimental, which he captured to the point of sublimity elsewhere – perhaps his zenith – in another adaptation from piano, of McCoy Tyner’s Search for Peace.

Brilliant Corners is the title track of a Monk album from 1956: a strange piece announced tonight on drums: always prominent from Winston Clifford’s versatile range of drumsticks and fingertip percussion - tribal primality, even Latino rhythms peeping through the cracks. And, through Monk’s complex rhythmic accents: off into Gee’s again percussive piano and Kofi’s solo, coasting – yes, but with his characteristic stop-starts, and punctuation that articulates Monk’s already playful tempi and irregularities. The night has thickened, and Kofi affords himself a smile: “I don’t think we played that better in the studio”, he confesses, albeit presenting the album.

Toni KofiWe See duly closes the first act, with its drumbeat from Clifford invoking the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil and Ben Hazleton’s earthen bass. Gee relishes the eccentric interventions on piano – as much Guaraldi as Monk at moments – which he plays as a rendition of contrasts between doubt and wit. Kofi signs off with soaring sax, filling out what was recorded in studio and swaying between registers, to, fro, back and forth. Throughout, so far: an exhilarating exploration and articulation of Monk’s percussive sonorities, cranky whimsicality, and mannerisms.

Kofi is a wonderful story, as well as musician. He was raised in Nottingham, speaking Ghanian Twi at home, English at school. He wanted to study music, but failed the required tests, and became an apprentice carpenter. One day in 1981, while at work on a construction site, Kofi fell three storeys, and as he plunged to what he was certain to be his death, he had a vision of himself playing an instrument, if he survived. He did, and he did: some time later, after recovering from severe cerebral trauma, he saw a saxophone, and realised this was what he had beheld in his mind's eye. 

By then 16, he bought one with the £50 he had received in compensation money, and taught himself from his mother's collection of jazz records (like mine, her first live concert had been to see Louis Armstrong, probably on the same tour of 1965). Bent on no other future than music, Kofi was rejected by a college in Nottingham but, incredibly, offered a scholarship by the far superior Berklee School, after seeing an advert for auditions in Downbeat magazine. He returned to England, after three years working with both classically – and self-trained colleagues in America, a combination which he entwined with such cogency tonight: a singular fluidity which comes from a reverence for the written scores he studies, but then discards in order to play, record and perform.

Kofi is a didactic about his work and music: passionately committed to what he calls "my educational crusades" – to music as a redemptive right of the poor. He works closely with the estimable World Heart Beat Academy in South London, and similar institutions. In an email, he explained his reasons: "people do ask me why am I doing so much with education? My answer is that no young child or teenager should ever go without music lessons at the start of their journey through life – like I had to – even if their parents can’t afford it. It pains me, I’m also giving cheap or next to nothing music lessons to young musicians because their parents can’t afford it. I was extremely lucky because I was very driven, because of my accident and the pre-future visions”.

The second, late, set proceeds through the album’s track list: Crepuscule With Nellie has a beautiful solo introit, but even the romance and serenity of the tune are spiced with oddities. The next number, Teo, features a bedazzling solo from Gee, playing his piano strings, pizzicato.

Misterioso is just that, and in its way the kernel of the night: title track of a live album Monk recorded at the Five Spot in 1958, after getting his performance license back following conviction for possession of heroin, protecting his friend pianist Bud Powell whose vial the police had found. Glorious: after its exploratory stepping-stone overture, the number finds a steadily glorious slow blues of articulate understatement: Kofi and Gee stamping their own mark beyond that of reverence for what Monk wrote on the stave – elaborating on, rather than adapting, Monks original. Gallop’s Gallop hits full swing, allowing Kofi off a leash that was never there in the first place. There’s a discourse between piano and drums – to which Kofi the bandleader listens eyes-closed, then gives a little shiver of delight.

Light Blue which Monk recorded for an LP paired with Miles Davis at Newport, as well as for his Theolonius in Action record - which Monk recorded with Miles Davis at Newport, as well as for his Theolonius in Action record – is meditation done here with an inner glow: sleazily beautiful, with dancing dissonance. Think of One, included on Monl’s album of 1963, Criss Cross, showcases Clifford’s range of sounds: on cymbals, in vocal syncopation, with drumsticks and fingertips. Toni Kofi Quartet at the 606 ClubKofi's favourite sax, made in 1933, was stolen from World Heartbeat while the centre was closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. But fans and fellow musicians quickly raised £3,000 on a GoFundMe page for him to buy another, a glorious baritone … Which he now produces for the closing number: Monk’s Mood, a solo, strong breeze of music up and down this outrageous instrument. But what is that “mood”? At once patient but in search of the next thing; cognizant but inconclusive – and heartfelt.

Inevitably, the raw excitement this ensemble brings to Monk’s music on stage transcends even the indispensable album – it does make one wish they had also re-recorded the music live, as Monk did many times, in various permutations.

We are lucky to call this musician "British", with his Ghanaian roots, and his being rescued from injury and rejection in Nottingham by his own iron determination, and embrace by the "good America" to which Monk’s music belongs. 

Kofi’s extraordinary gift is his mastery and exploitation of those opposites that form the quintessence of jazz, and jazz’s defiance of time with double-time: pause and punctuation, tension and release, brakes and breaks, acceleration and deceleration. In such a way that captivates, edge-of-seat.

Comparisons with the also self-taught Ornette Colman’s technique and phrasing are inevitably ridiculous, but sometimes less so.

As he plunged to what he was certain to be his death, Kofi had a vision of himself playing an instrument, if he survived


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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